First published in 1976, The Bride Price begins in Lagos, a port city in Nigeria. The opening scenes move quickly through the events that are about to significantly alter the lives of the Odia family: Ezekiel, the father; Ma Blackie, the mother; Nna-nndo, the son; and Aku-nna, the daughter and protagonist of this story.
Ezekiel, the father, is dying – a fact unknown by his wife and their children. One fateful day, he leaves home for hospital to treat an injury he got when at war in foreign lands. When three weeks later, the children learn of his death, Nna-ndo moans,
“We have no father anymore. There is no longer any schooling for me. This is the end.”
But Aku-nna, who is very intelligent beyond her years, knows that much more has been lost. For a fatherless family is a family without a head, a family without shelter.
As a result of the tragedy, the family leaves Lagos and moves back to their ancestral village in Ibuza.
In Ibuza, Aku-nna is faced with the challenge of reconciling her learning of the European ways in school with the countless and unchanging traditions of her own people at home. Her mother, who, by tradition, has been inherited by her uncle Okwonkwo, rarely gives her any attention. Aku-nna who has failed to fit into the new society withdraws more into herself. That is until, Chike Ofulue her teacher tells her that she is valued, treasured and loved.
Chike becomes her friend. He is there on the day she becomes a woman, but their relationship is forbidden- Chike’s ancestry is linked to a family of slaves and it is an abomination for the daughter of a free man to marry a slave’s son.
But these two love birds are determined to fight for their love. When Aku-nna is kidnapped for marriage, Chike rescues her and they elope. They get married but the issue of bride price is a bone of contention between them. For in Ibuza,
“…. If the bride price is not paid, the bride will die at childbirth.”
The marriage is a happy one except for Aku-nna’s quiet moods, but Chike thinks these moods are just a part of her:
“You cannot expect a person to be happy all the time just because they happen to be married to you.”
Unknown to the young couple, Okwonkwo is out to kill Aku-nna for the embarrassment she has brought his family by marrying a slave. He rejects the money offered to him by Chike’s family as bride price. And so it happens that by the time Aku-nna goes into hospital to have her first baby, her bride price has not been paid and she doesn’t survive the birth of her first child! In reality, Aku-nna was still too young and malnourished to carry a pregnancy. But to the people of Ibuza, this is proof of the power of long-held traditions. Her story is told to all young girls to reinforce the old taboos of Ibuza.
Buchi Emecheta’s The Bride Price covers many themes from bride price to tradition and the caste system in Nigeria. Her book illustrates how cultural norms imprison women, in particular, but it does offer some hope that, someday, these barriers will be broken.